I still chuckle at the memory of a mother of teens who said in only-partly joking despair, “I taught my kids to be independent, and now they ARE!” But she was onto something.
It is easy to stereotype teenager years. Many of us have vivid memories the angst-filled days and peer drama that can be part and parcel of adolescence. Reports of tragedies resulting from risky teen behaviors are sadly familiar. And yet, there is another side to the story. Today, as the world struggles with the pandemic, we have teens across the country using 3-D printers to create face shields, organizing to provide needed supplies to individuals without homes, and helping seniors with the technology that keeps them connected. Teen activists are nothing new. Malala Yousafzai first drew attention as a teenage blogger writing about access to education. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, drew worldwide attention in their efforts to reform gun laws.
Recent research in neuroscience is helpful in understanding both aspects of adolescence. A 2019 report from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine titled “The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth,” describes the remarkable transformation of the adolescent brain. The brain development in adolescence is second only to that of early childhood—naturally filled with curiosity and eager to take on challenges. Just as their bodies are maturing into those of adults, adolescents’ brains are developing in ways that will support them in leaving home and succeeding on their own. They become more sensitive to peer’s opinions and more willing to take risks. While risk-taking by teens carries, well, risks, it also provides a prime environment for creative thinking and problem solving. Unfortunately, those characteristics emerge during a time when our educational system can be hyper-focused on compliance and testing, in the mistaken belief that those things are necessary for future success.
I sometimes wonder whether society’s efforts to squash adolescent rebellion, control teens, and keep them safe is at the root of some of the most unsafe behaviors. It is interesting to imagine what would happen if, instead, we focused on teaching young people how to gauge risks and engage with meaningful problems. Real world creative problem solving always entails risk. How much could be gained with we helped teens take risks in advocacy, performance, or scientific experimentation rather than less productive options. I hope during this time of educational pause, we can take a few minutes to imagine things done differently, rather than envisioning a future crammed full of “catching up.”
In an interview with Cognitive Neuroscience, researcher Adriana Galvan describes teenage brains as, “thirsty for exploration, learning, and social relationships” and says “At no other time in life is there greater intrinsic motivation to explore new experiences than during adolescence.” Let’s think a bit about how we can help them use it.